Changing the Channel

For years, homeowners, developers, environmentalists and the federal government have wrangled over a flood-control plan for Clear Creek. Now a compromise is in view -- but the creek's future is murkier than ever.

The conflict has pitted neighbor against neighbor and exacerbated tensions between the upstream and downstream communities. During the six-month review, the five cities around Clear Lake passed resolutions opposing the Corps plan, while League City, Friendswood, Pearland and Brazoria County all went on record supporting it.

With various interest groups prepared to take more dramatic measures to see their visions for the creek realized, the issue may soon come to a head, possibly in the courts. But that may only serve to mire any resolution in a legal bog for years. In the meantime, as development continues at a rapid clip and opportunities to save the creek erode, everyone will end up the loser.

"Something has to get done," says Nassau Bay mayor Don Matter, who favors the flood-control district's alternative. "Nothing getting done is the worst of all possible worlds."

Surrounded by stacks of paper, boxes and books that fill almost every inch of open space in her cramped office, Terry Hershey digs through her Clear Creek files. They're thick: Hershey has been fighting the Army Corps channelization project since it first took shape in 1968. "It's a bad project," Hershey says. "It always was a bad project, and it's still a bad project."

Perhaps Houston's most effective environmental advocate, Hershey knows a bit about bayous and flood control. In 1966, she co-founded the Bayou Preservation Association and helped stop a similar Corps plan to channelize a significant portion of Buffalo Bayou. And she was recently appointed to the board of the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation, a national organization involved with floodplain issues.

To Hershey and most everyone else involved with floodplain management, the old idea that channelizing bayous is an effective means of flood control has given way to alternative methods that preserve the natural waterways -- regional detention ponds, bypass channels, restrictions on development in the floodplain and buyouts of those who should never have built there in the first place. "The floodplain is the river's detention basin," says Hershey. "We ought to stay out of it."

That view has gained almost universal acceptance in the wake of the disastrous Mississippi River floods of 1993. But Hershey and her allies used those same arguments back when the Clear Creek project was first unveiled. "We spoke from common sense in the '60s and '70s," Hershey says. "Our common sense told us it was stupid to channelize rivers and streams. In the '90s we speak with a lot more authority."

Common sense failed to carry the day, however. To the Corps, flood control and channelization were inseparable, and Clear Creek would simply have to conform to conventional wisdom. The Corps and Harris and Galveston counties held public hearings and other meetings to rehash the issue in 1974, 1976 and again in 1982, and each time environmental groups offered alternatives. Invariably, the Corps dismissed them as impractical. "They said, 'All we can do is channelize the creek,' " recalls Mary Ellen Brennan, a Friendswood resident who has opposed the project since its inception.

Finally, in 1986, the Corps signed a contract with the Harris County Flood Control District and Galveston County to build a channel that would extend from Clear Lake to the Brazoria-Galveston County line. The feds would provide $69 million of the estimated $83 million total, with the two counties splitting the difference. Though reduced in scope from the original plan, the strategy remained the same -- bend the creek to the will of the people.

Slowed by a lawsuit over right-of-way acquisition, the project plodded along for another decade. The design for the three project segments was approved, and in July 1996 the Corps began to construct the second outlet between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.

Though many opponents of the project were skeptical that the Clear Creek project would ever get off the ground, the construction work on the second outlet convinced them otherwise. A flurry of calls to flood-control district executive director Art Storey ensued. The outcry was loud enough and the arguments salient enough that Storey asked last April for a six-month hiatus to consider the situation. "It is never too late to abandon a wrong course of action," he said on several occasions.

Storey assembled a project review team to study alternatives and staged several public meetings to air opinions. Once again, opponents called for modern flood-control methods to supplant channelization. This time, they had more ammunition: Across the country, cities and counties are rejecting the old methods as outdated and are increasingly employing detention, buyouts and land-use management as the primary tools to control flooding.

In part, the change is practical -- not only has channelization destroyed the ecological benefits of waterways, but in many cases it did little to alleviate flooding. Brays Bayou, an ugly concrete monument to misguided thinking, was supposed to take care of flooding problems along its banks. Instead, neighborhood streets have filled up with Brays water on several occasions, and the entire Medical Center goes into a panic every time there's a major downpour.

Even the Corps has altered its view of the world, though usually in response to lawsuits and court orders. In Florida, California and Tennessee, the agency is actually tearing out channelized projects and restoring the rivers and streams to their original condition.

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